Caveat: The English Teacher K

Yes, another Kafka reference.

I go to work yesterday, only to find out I don’t need to be there. The groundskeeper asks me “오늘 수업 있어요?” (“have class today?”) and I say I don’t – I knew that. But I thought I still had to be there. I’m not quite sure how to phrase that, in Korean. Then he asks me why I’m there. No one else is around. I go to the classroom I’d been using for my summer classes, just as a place to hang out and a computer to sit down at. I text some coworkers, and await their response.

Finally, they text back that, indeed, I didn’t need to be there. I contemplate feeling angry, but decide that “showing up for work when you don’t need to be there is better than NOT showing up for work when you DO need to be there.” Hmm, what to do?

I walk back down through the courtyard. There are some children, hanging out. “Hi kids,” I say. “Why are you here?”

Big googly eyes, showing utter non-English. Yeah… how would you feel, if some guy spoke English to you, after a wonderful, month-long summer vacation? I recognize the little girl from a fourth grade class, from the end of July. So I ask, “학교에 왜 왔어요?” (“to school why came?”)

“그냥,” (“just whatever”) she answers. Big, pleased-looking smile. Kids do this, in Korea. They come to school when it’s not in session, just to hang out. That’s especially interesting, when the school’s been transformed into a giant construction zone – two workmen carrying bags of cement trundle past us.

I poke my head in the teacher’s workroom, one last time. My colleague Mr Lee is there.  Look of utter surprise. In Korean, he begins something to the effect of “why are you here?”

“오늘 일하야 하지 않아요… 잘 몰랐어요.” I know this is bad, awkward Korean, but he tilts his head and grins in understanding – its message makes it across the barrier. (“today work not have to… didn’t know”)

I leave the school. I have a free day. Completely unexpected. Well, not completely. I remember thinking on Friday… I’d thought, what are the chances I show up on Monday, and it turns out I don’t have to be there? But when I’d asked a coworker on Friday, they’d said, “no kids Monday, but yes we have to work.”

I decide to take the bus to Gwangju. Maybe hang out in a Starbucks or something. I do that sometimes. Got to support that Starbucks stock in my 401K, right?

I study Korean for a few hours – mostly vocabulary – something I haven’t done in such a focused manner in quite a while. Then I think, really, I should go find the immigration office. I have this pending bit of bureaucracy that needs finishing: I need to get a “multiple re-entry” stamp to go with my visa, for the event that I decide to travel outside of Korea – so far, I haven’t felt like traveling outside of Korea, and the soonest plan to do so would be next February, but having a free day during the work-week, in Gwangju, is pretty rare, so I might as well try to take care of it, right?

I log onto the internet using free wi-fi, and go to maps on, to find the immigration office. It’s not where I thought it was – good thing I looked. I walk around downtown Gwangju, then take the single-line subway out to Hwajeong station, and walk through this very much under construction neighborhood to the immigration office. As I arrive, it begins to rain. Why is it that every time I arrive at an immigration office in Korea, it begins to rain? I’m serious, I’ve been here 3 years, and this always seems to happen.

When I get into the immigration office, the place is more internationally chaotic than a Los Angeles branch of the California DMV. There are at least 50 dispirited-looking people in queue (taking little numbers) ahead of me, playing with ballpoint pens and forms. Sitting in chairs and standing around, enjoying the airconditioned office, away from the stunning humidity outside.

I hear vietnamese, tagolog, russian, english, chinese, some-other-language. Ah… nevermind. Maybe I’ll try to figure out how to do this online? Or come back some other day, when half the foreign population of Jeollanamdo hasn’t got business at the immigration office.

I go to E-mart (Wal-mart, since Wal-mart abandoned the Korean market some years back, the local partners re-branded as E-mart, but it’s still basically Korean Wal-mart). The sky is beautiful, as I walk. Clouds scudding.

I find some good Australian cheddar cheese for sale, there, unexpectedly. I buy a new shirt. I go to the bus terminal, nearby, and have a “toseuteu” (“toast,” which really means a grilled egg sandwich). I go back home.

Strange, directionless day, yesterday.

Oh… I just had a strange, strange thought. What if you sat down to read Kafka’s The Castle, but you were given one bit of information before you started: “The Land Surveyor K is a bodhisattva.” Wouldn’t that utterly change the meaning of the book?

Caveat: Let People Live In Your Heart

I want to be a better teacher.  Often, I feel like I drop the ball on this immense project.  Sometimes, I lose sight of the objective, or else, I get frustrated, and stand still, for a long time.

Sometimes, one finds unexpected inspiration.   Many of my fellow foreign teachers are my “friends” in facebook, and I occasionally take the time to survey the messy world of facebook postings, to see what’s going on.  This morning I found some unexpected inspiration, in something someone posted a link to.  So I’ll add it here. 

I don’t know if this is possible in American public schools.  It should be.  Certainly, although not common, it’s at least not inconceivable in a Korean classroom, at least in my limited experience.   It’s an example of what I’ve seen translated as “moral education,” which is an integrated part of the Korean classroom curriculum, as in Japan.  My feeling is that although the teacher in the video is still an outlier (on the “good” end of the scale), he’s less of one in the Asian spectrum than in the Western one.

I haven’t finished watching all five parts on youtube.  Much of it isn’t per se relevant to working as a foreign language teacher (as opposed to, say, a local-native-language homeroom teacher) – empathy can be hard to convey when the kids only understand a small percentage of what one is saying to them.

But I’ve never found the concept of “moral education” offensive, the way that many Westerners react to this Asian classroom universality, and which this teacher in this video has integrated so deeply into his classroom.  Certainly, done badly, it can be full of nonsense and propaganda.  But done well, it’s the absolute main purpose of putting children into collective groups and “educating” them – much more important than math, reading, writing, etc. 

I often end up on the losing side of arguments with Westerners (and even with Koreans) over whether the Korean education system is “broken” – I believe it is much less “broken” than our American system, at least at the elementary level.  And in part, it’s because I think that the sort of “moral education” being exemplified in the video is at least not impossible here, if nevertheless rare.  Whereas it’s become my impression that such a classroom experience would simply be out of the question in the US.  Maybe it is, and I’m just out of touch with how education works in my home country.  But that’s my impression.  And the fact is, if I had kids right now, I’d rather them going to school in Korea or Japan than in the US or Canada. 

Caveat: Arcoiris en Bulgapsan

Mi amigo Seungbae recien ha conseguido nuevo empleo en Gwangju.  En consecuencia, voy a poder verle más frecuentemente que cuando estaba en Suwon.  Ayer me llamó, y vino a visitarme en Yeonggwang por unas horas.  Como tiene vehículo, fácilmente fuimos a Bulgapsan, la montaña al sur del pueblo donde se ubica un templo algo famoso, y que no he podido visitar hasta el momento:  hay autobuses locales que corren regularmente, solo he faltado de motivación para poder hacerlo.

Llovía bastante fuerte a ratos, en el parque alrededor del templo, pero fuimos caminando y hablando.  Debía haber traído mi cámera, porque el templo fue muy bello e interesante, incluso un puerto en forma circular, construcción tradicional, muchas figuras  pintadas con los colores tradicionales de Corea.  Debo regresar con mi cámera.

Caminando de regreso al estacionamiento, vimos un gran arcoiris sobre el valle. 

Caveat: The View From Your Window

Andrew Sullivan has a feature on his blog (at The Atlantic magazine’s website) called “The View From Your Window,” where he invites people to send unstaged photos of views from their windows, and he publishes them in his blog. He’s even compiled these photos and put them into a book.

A few months back, I emailed a photo I had taken from the window in my classroom at Hongnong. I had posted the photo on my blog, on June 17. I didn’t really expect the photo to be published in Sullivan’s blog. But he did. Now I can say that my photography has been published on The Atlantic‘s website.

[UPDATE 2024-04-18: Of course, in the fullness of time, The Atlantic’s link rotted. Mine did too, actually, but I was able to fix mine. Anyway, you can’t see that view from my window on Sullyblog, anymore. Sully long moved on and became right-wingier and irrelevant.]

Caveat: Goodbye, Town

Today was the last day of my “summer camp” classes.  I was so pleased with how much my sixth-grade class (which actually included not just sixth graders but at least one fifth grader, one fourth grader, and a third grader, too) seemed to like the project.  We made a town, on the bulletin board, using construction paper, with scissors and crayons and pens.  And using dice, we played a game, running businesses, having disasters, earning money, buying and selling land.  We even had a stock market.
It was a small class.  All the regulars showed up for the last day.  We liquified assets, and I sold them “real world” stickers and candy.  $200 bought a miniature chocolate bar, and $300 got a small sheet of smileyface stickers.  We disassembled the town.
Here is a video I made, this morning, before that end.  The girls’ ability-levels are highly varied, but they all understood the main ideas, and got into the project.


Caveat: Not A Single Charming Feature

That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I realized that since the whole apartment fiasco that my school put me through during my first two months, I never took the time to post any pictures of my new apartment. On the inside, it’s quite similar to my apartment in Ilsan, although it’s a bit smaller. At least it’s fairly new and in good condition, and the existence of a working airconditioner is definitely a redeeming feature. But it’s not charming, per se.

On the outside, it looks like a low-end Korean love motel, with the added bonus of being situated in the back parking lot of a gas station, and a 20 minute walk down a vaguely rural highway from the bus station. Here’s an outside view. My apartment is on the sixth floor (actually fifth, since “fourth” is skipped due to bad luck – much the way 13th floors are skipped in American buildings, sometimes), behind the false gable, second window from the left end.


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Caveat: I want money ~ please

I found this on my bulletin-board town (which the students named “Washington, SK”) today.
Actually, the student who wrote this is the richest in the town.  So I guess that’s the power of affirmational thinking.
Some other close-ups.

Caveat: “Seu-naeng-naep” Part I – Konglish Challenge Quiz

When the Korean Language borrows words from English, those words undergo very regular and scientifically predictable sound changes (by the "science" of linguistics, specifically the sub-field of phonology).   It is inappropriate (and intellectually lazy) when foreigners (i.e. foreigners in Korea, meaning non-native-Korean speakers) refuse to understand this and make fun of it, or attribute "konglish" pronunciation to laziness or ineptitude on the part of Koreans attempting to use English vocabulary.

But it nevertheless can be challenging to figure out what is meant, or even to realize that one is hearing an English word at all.  I like the example above, "seu-naeng-naep."  I won't write it in Hangeul, because that might give it away to the more savvy and/or to the vaguely bilingual among my readers.  I was only able to figure it out because of the context in which I heard it, combined with above-referenced access to Korean phonological rules.

The Konglish Challenge Quiz question is:  what English word for a product advertised on TV, is being named by the term "seu-naeng-naep" (revised romanization; IPA [sɯnɛŋnɛp])? 

In "Part II" I'll give the answer.

Caveat: Are We On Zanzibar?

John Brunner's novel Stand On Zanzibar is a new wave science fiction novel written in the 60's and meant to be taking place in 2010.   The novel made a very profound impression on me, when I read it while still in high school – in fact, all of my college entrance essays referenced the book, if I recall.

Since it was set in 2010, it might be interesting to re-read it now.  I think it had a darker vision of the future than what has actually come about – I recall a sort of constant-state-of-war, a la Orwell's 1984, but with a McLuhanesque flavor.  

I wonder if I could get a copy here in Korea.

Caveat: 제목: 공룡액자

I don’t know why exactly, but I love this picture that my first-grade student Eun-ji made for me.  She wrote 제목: 공룡액자 in upper left and bottom center.  It means “Title:  Dinosaur Picture,” roughly.  She wrote my name, 왜제렏 (my own prefered transliteration), but then appeared to have second thoughts and crossed it out (or else maybe she experienced the vandalism of one of her peers?), and wrote 선생님께 (to teacher) instead.


And here is a picture of the sixth grade town-building class.  These are five girls who refuse to leave – the picture was taken 20 minutes after the end of class, and they’re still messing around with arranging things in the town, discussing things they want to do, decorating their houses and businesses, etc.


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Caveat: If it weren’t for that ad…

I had an American friend, Peter, who worked in Ilsan.  He's back in the US, now, but one time when I was hanging out with him and the TV was on, and this commercial came on.  One of those ubiquitous, twitchy, obnoxious TV commercials.  Peter and I had been talking, rather seriously, about the positives and negatives of "life in Korea," and when that ad came on, Peter said, in a wry tone, "If it weren't for that ad, I would love this country."

That ad still comes on the TV all the time, half a year later.  And it came on, and I remembered Peter's joke, and laughed.  And just to give everyone a taste of something small and irrelevant but absolutely, undeniably a part of "life in Korea," here is that ad.  Enjoy!  Or throw things at me!  Whichever.

I think 원캐싱 (won-kae-sing i.e. "won cashing") is a check-cashing or salary-advance type service.  As if you could tell from the ad – although note the exhorbitant interest rate that flashes up in the fine print at one point.

Caveat: Becoming the Ghosts of Our Ancestors

I was really sore yesterday, from the hike on Saturday.   So I didn't do much.  I watched some television; I started to try to write a story that was so terrible I immediately wanted to delete it. 

Then last night I had some very strange dreams.  The dream I was having when I woke up this morning was like some strange science-fiction movie, with many details and complex plot-twists.  It was one of those "remote colony on another planet gradually goes insane" plots, but there were features to the plot that made it uniquely mine.

The colony was a Korean colony:  yes, there were Koreans making space colonies.  And I was there, as some kind of token non-Korean.  I often didn't know what was going on.   So far, so much exactly like real life.

But… there were invisible monsters stalking the colony – a la "Forbidden Planet."  Members of the colony kept disappearing.   Soon many of the buildings and areas were dilapidated and vacant.

Then there was some weird time-travel experience.  The few remaining survivors of the invisible monsters, including myself, locked ourselves into an underground room and decided to go into some kind of cold-sleep for 100 years, to await a rescue team.

After 100 years, when we came back out, much to our surprise, there were people living in the colony, including families with children.   The people were living the lives of traditional, pre-modern Koreans, although they still had some technology.  They thought we were the ghosts of ancestors.  They had set up Jang-seung (traditional Korean wooden totem poles, carved with the faces of spirits) around the encampment.

And then the awaited rescue team arrived, finally.  The rescue team included my sister.  She was very unimpressed by the state of things.   "Why have you been wasting time building farms and having children?" she demanded, pointing at all the mysterious people who had taken over the colony.  I didn't know.  I was as puzzled as she was.  I was worried about the invisible monsters, still.

There was one strange building, that had been built, while we were in cold-sleep:  it looked a little bit like a church, but was full of machinery.  I went to look at it, on a hill, with my sister and some Korean soldiers from the rescue team, who were chain-smoking cigarettes.   The building was surrounded by carefully planted redwood trees.  When we got to the building at the top of the hill and looked back down at the colony, all of the people had disappeared.  The colony was deserted.  I wondered if we ALL were ghosts.

That's about when I woke up.  Pretty complicated dream.  A little bit like Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Paramo," in space.

Caveat: Somebody loves Morgan Freeman a lot more than I do

That somebody is Yellow Ostrich.  Plus, I like his music marketing strategy:  pay what you think it’s worth.  Embedded, a video of one of the tracks of his Morgan Freeman EP (“Inspired by Morgan Freeman’s wikipedia page.”).  Brilliant.  And here’s a review. A commenter muses, “this is post-irony, I thnk.” Uh-huh-yeh. Thanks to Chris Bodenner, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic, for pointing to this.

Yellow Ostrich – Morgan Freeman’s Early Life from Panaframe on Vimeo.

Caveat: 음주산행 절대금지

I hiked up to the top of 월출산 (wol-chul-san = Moon Rise Mountain) with my friend Mr Kim. It took 7 hours – about 3 hours longer than we had anticipated – we went very slowly, like ants (우리는 개미처럼 천천히 가고 있었습니다) . We spent a lot of time pausing and trying to communicate with one another, me teaching English, him teaching Korean.

I became frustrated with “faucalized consonants” (or sometimes called “tense” consonants, and mistakenly understood by many as geminates because they are written as “doubles” of the regular series:  ㅅ[s] / ㅆ [s͈]… ㄱ[k] / ㄲ[k͈] … ㅂ[p] / ㅃ[p͈] … ㅈ[t͡ɕ] /ㅉ[t͡ɕ͈] … ㄷ[t] /ㄸ[t͈]). Not even the linguists seem really to understand these sounds. To my English-trained ear, I am simply incapable of hearing how they’re different, but there are many minimal pairs where understanding the distinction is important. I can’t produce the sound consistently either, although I can sometimes make myself understood by pronouncing a geminate or by using the “ejective” series that I worked so hard to master during my phonology classes as a linguistics major: p’, t’, k’, q’, s’ (these ejectives are common in many African Bantu-family languages, like Xhosa, I think).

Memorably, I was trying to say the word “dream”: 꿈 [k͈um] (standard romanization <kkum>), but Mr Kim was simply incapable of figuring out what I was talking about, because he was only hearing me say 굼[kum], which, standing alone, is a nonsense syllable. I was almost in tears when I realized I simply couldn’t express the sound correctly. Will I ever be able to do it? I wish I could meet a Korean-speaker who was also a trained linguist (or, a trained linguist who was also a Korean-speaker would do, too), who could teach me what to do with my vocal tract to make these sounds reliably. Most Koreans, when faced with the idea that the difference is hard to hear for non-native-speakers, will simply pronounce the faucalized versions louder, because that is part of how they’re perceived psychologically, I think.

Anyway… here are some pictures.

Approaching the mountain in the car from Yeongam Town.


A small temple under construction.  I like the detailed woodwork on the eaves.


A small purple flower.


I’m not sure what “shemanism” is (sounds vaguely West Hollywood), but it’s definitely not allowed.


The Cloud Bridge (구름다리)


A dragonfly.


“Hiking while drunk prohibitted.”


Looking east.


At the summit.


A man surfing the internet on his cellphone at the summit (because we’re in South Korea, of course).


On the way back down:  Six Brothers Rocks.


Me, trying to look very tired (because I was very tired).


A waterfall.


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Caveat: The commute to work, part III: High Street

I don’t really know the name of the street.  It’s one of basically two streets that make up Hongnong town.  There’s a “High Street” and a “Low Street” – I mean these literally, because one street is farther up the hill than the other, and they run parallel to each other, with little alleyways between, for about 10 blocks in length.  The bus terminal is on the southwest end of “High Street” and the elementary school where I work is on about two-thirds along the same street, toward the northeast end.  Beyond the elementary school is the middle school and the fire station.

Here’s the little video I made – all shakey and walky but whatever… it sorta captures the town.  Although that morning I didn’t run into any of my students, like I normally do.  The music is “Fractured” by Zeromancer.  Awesome track.

(Sorry the resolution is so poor – I’ve been having nightmares with uploading large files from home, so I cut the video output filesize way back, to make it tolerable on upload – it still took 25 minutes to put it on youtube.)

Caveat: Where is your house?

Mr Kim, from last weekend, invited me to go hiking today.   I was thrilled to hear myself attempting to give him directions to my apartment in Korean, yesterday evening, on the phone.   Well, not thrilled.  But it gives me some optimism, when I use the language at all in a successful way, that I may someday "get there" – wherever "there" is: some kind of communicative efficacy, anyway.

"Where is your house?" he asked.  I answered in English, and realized he wasn't understanding.  I tried to explain in Korean, then.  I wasn't even using full sentences.  But he said he understood.  Now, we have a real-life test of that understanding, as I wait for him to show up to pick me up.

Caveat: Optional School

I've always wondered what it would be like to to run a school that was genuinely, completely optional for children.  Partly, it's a sort of what-if, child-empowerment question that has lingered with me since my own hippyish origins.   Partly, it's some curiosity as to what might be the challenges of such an operation, from the standpoint of things like curriculum.

The Hongnong summer school seems to be my chance to see how such a thing might work.  Any given kid shows up one day, and not the next.  A colleague teacher comes by my classroom at 10 AM, and deposits a pair of visiting nieces with me, because the teacher's got something "important" to do.  "This is my nephew [sic].  Can she stay here for a while?"  "Sure," I grin, and a preschooler in a soaking wet purple shirt charges happily in amongst my third graders and begins headbutting her older peers, like an ecstatic goat.  I give her a paper cut-out alligator and some crayons.

The consequence is that there's very little chance to build up any kind of class-to-class "progress" – each class session becomes a stand-alone daycare operation, where even the nominal breakdown by age or ability no longer holds.

Not even the physical environment holds steady.  The school is under constant, heavy construction.  Yesterday morning, I entered my classroom to find two workmen hanging out the window, doing something arcane with a power drill.  And then during the JET test prep class, the power went out.  Whoops… I guess we need a new lesson plan that doesn't require the computer (which I was using to play the CD with listening sections on it).

And you know what?  I don't mind.  I'm not bad at rigidity and structure, tempermentally.  But I've always harbored philosphical reservations about it.  So here we are.  What shall we do today?

Caveat: Model Minority

I was reading an essay by Oliver Wang, who has been guest-writing for Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog at The Atlantic magazine website (and, incidentally, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the highest-quality blog that I've run across, both in terms of quality of writing and depth of topics).  Wang is talking about a social issues class he teaches (apparently he's a university professor of some sort).  He talks about a lot of issues, but he touches on one of the ones that most interests me.

Surprisingly, illegal immigration has not been a big topic but what is surprising is that the majority of my students who write about illegal immigration as a social problem are Asian American and presumably, either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Moreover, there's invariably at least one or two papers that use familiar boilerplate such as "illegal immigration is bankrupting the state" even though when I actually covered immigration, earlier in the semester, I specifically try to defuse overheated talking points such as these.

In any case, these papers by Asian American students have been a curious phenom; I've seen it happen now at least three semester in a row but I don't have a great explanation for it besides some half-hearted theory about it being some internalized model minority mentality. This is one of those, "this topic requires more research" moments.

My thoughts, regarding this: I don't think that  it's Asian-Americans' role as "model minority" that creates these reactionary politics vis-a-vis immigration issues, but rather the fact of their having come from Asia in the first place – because in much of Asia (most notably in Korea and Japan, in my experience, but hardly limited to those countries, I expect), ideologies of racial purity and narratives about the overwhelming "cost" of all types of immigration (i.e. not just the financial burden but also the social costs within relatively homogeneous societies) are quite dominant.

These ideologies, I suspect, are not easily discarded by just a few generations' removal to a new and very different society / ideological setting.  The contrast might be that, in comparison to East Asia, other large immigrant groups in the U.S. these days mostly hail from societies that are to one degree or another multicultural themselves, perhaps not always on the "melting pot" model of the U.S., but nevertheless…  consider the mestizismo narratives of the Mexican "Raza" concept, or the castes and hierarchies (often leading to heterogeneous social subgroupings) found in many south Asian or African cultures.

Caveat: Dramatic Arts… or Not

After more than a week of practicing, 35 minutes a day (minus weekend, of course), I've decided to try to benchmark the progress (or lack thereof) of my third graders' effort to make a little musical play.

I'm feeling the pain of my own lack of experience in teaching / directing a dramatic production, definitely.  Especially with a bunch of only marginally focused, limited-English-speaking, hyperactive 8 year olds (Western age counting – Koreans call them 10 year olds).

We're doing a little 7 minute-long musical production I found on one of the kindergarten curriculum DVDs, where I've added some characters and dialogue to accommodate the larger group, but kept the songs, which are simple and the kids seem to like them.

Here's some video I made of where things stand.  Pretty rough.

Caveat: Män som hatar kvinnor

I watched a movie I’d read about, finally, yesterday. The name it was released under in English is “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but the movie is Swedish, and the Swedish title is “Män som hatar kvinnor” which translates as “Men who hate women.” This latter is a much more appropriate title – the fact is, it’s a very dark, brutal film, on themes like rape and misogyny, and therefore I should picturemake clear at the outset, I don’t recommend this as a “lite” cinema experience: not a family a film.

But the acting and cinematography were pretty good, and the good guys (and girls) win, in the end, so it’s not that depressing.

My main thought as I was watching the movie, though, was actually linguistic. I’ve never studied Swedish. I did, in fact, study Danish for a short period back when I was “surfing languages” at the University of Minnesota in 87~89 (I had a tendency to attend a few weeks or months of various beginning language classes without even actually enrolling – or enrolling and then dropping before the full refund deadline – as a kind of linguistic sampler, and during that two year period I hit perhaps half a dozen languages that way). Swedish and Danish are closely related. And they’re both close relatives of English.

The consequence of this relatedness (combined with the general insights offered by my having studied linguistics, and those weeks of beginning Danish) is that I found myself depressedly realizing I could understand about the same proportion of the Swedish dialogue as I am able to understand of Korean dialogue in a Korean movie – after having been trying to learn Korean for several years! Not all foreign languages are created equal, in terms of foreignness, I suppose. But it was kind of a strange and frustrating realization.

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Caveat: Building a country from scratch; and later, the green tea plantations of Boseong

Yesterday I took a day trip. It followed the pattern of many day trips I’ve taken with Koreans – a little bit random, with an initial plan but a lot of ad hoc changes, too. A bit like many things. Unlike in work situations, however, this kind of thing doesn’t bother me in the least. It’s a good way to do things.

I have a coworker, Haewon, who is Gyopo. “Gyopo” is what Koreans call fellow Koreans who are born or have lived abroad and pertain at least as much to that foreign culture as to Korean culture. Haewon grew up in Houston, Texas, and she is not a full-time teacher – she’s kind of bottom-of-the-totem pole, because she’s young – university age – and I don’t think she holds a Korean teaching certification. She’s kind of just a teaching assistant or part-timer. Anyway, being the only truly bilingual person in the school (and possibly the only truly bilingual person in the entire town of Hongnong), she often gets stuck with “translator duty,” which I think must be very hard on her.

At first, I didn’t feel that comfortable around her – she seemed too serious, and kind of gloomy. But I’ve come to think highly of her. She’s quite intelligent, although she hides it for the most part, and she’s got a sort of understated, wry sense of humor that shows up at odd moments. Friday, she told me she had been invited by one of her adult students (she teaches a night class at the nuclear power plant) to go drive down and look at Boseong, which is where the famous green tea plantations are, at the other end of Jeollanam Province. She conveyed her student’s invitation that I could come along too.

The adult student was Mr Kim, who is a nuclear engineer who works at the power plant as a senior reactor operator. Interesting stuff. He’s my age. He’s trying desperately to improve his English (because his next promotion depends on a certain minimum level of proficiency – it’s tied to recent contract the Korean Nuclear Power company has finagled to build reactors for the United Arab Emirates), hence the fact of his taking the night class, with Haewon, and also his invitation through her to any “foreigners” she might know to spend a Saturday hanging out and touring around. He’s a nice guy, and generous.

We didn’t follow the plan of going straight to Boseong. We ended up going the opposite direction, at first, because he wanted to go see this giant causeway (it’s a bit like the giant polders the Dutch have built to increase the size of their country, in engineering terms). First, though, we stopped at a ancient Buddhist temple called Seonsun, which is one of the oldest in Korea, having been established in 577.

The causeway, which stretches south of Kunsan in a great arc jutting into the Yellow Sea, is called Saemangeum, and basically, as I hinted, the Koreans appear to be taking a cue from the Dutch and are attempting to build more, brand new South Korea, from scratch. One dumps dirt and rocks and cement into the ocean, fills things in and drains water, adds roads, trees, buildings, harbors, and viola, more Korea!

The project is still in early stages, but the plan is humongous, vast – and although it’s not terribly photogenic, especially in the sticky summer fog, I tried to take some pictures. Then we drove to Boseong, after stopping at a fish market in Kunsan and eating some dried, smoked octopus tentacle, and then nearly drowning in a rainstorm while tailing a dumptruck.

Here are some pictures. I really liked the dumptruck bas-relief attached to the monument at Saemangeum – it would maybe make a good logo for my blog.

Here is a flower I saw at the side of the road, while walking to meet Haewon and Mr Kim at 7 in the morning.


Peering into one of the temple buildings, at Seonsunsa.


Me and the dumptruck.


Me and Mr Kim.


The giant, super-humongous tidal flood gates, near the midpoint of the 50 km. long dike that we drove along.


A stream in the woods near the tea fields.


Peering at tea from under cedars, misty day.


Tea fields.


More tea.


Me, candidly, eating naengmyeon.


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Caveat: The Evolving Town

Here are some pictures for the last week’s evolution of the town (“Washington, SK”) that my sixth graders are making.  The changes are more subtle than during the first week.  But it’s definitely continuing to get more complex.

Caveat: The Pentecostal Buddhist Confucian Fascist Republic

pictureSouth Korea is unique, and complicated.

Pentecostal: 30% evangelical Christian, with a strong pentecostal character to the evangelical churches.

Buddhist: 30~40% Buddhist, with at least 1000 years’ tradition of resistance to authority.

Confucian: that was the state “religion” for over 500 years, to the suppression/repression of all others.

Fascist: which of the Asian “tiger” economies isn’t at core, a remarkable – and somewhat depressing – realization of the fascist fantasy: state capitalism with majority-consensus-driven (and minority-oppressing) politics?

Republic: yes, the democracy seems to sort of work, here, although I’m personally convinced it’s a lot more fragile than many analysts seem to believe.

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Caveat: Genesis Defunct

I was reading in the 13.7 blog on NPR's website that the Big Bang theory, as a theory of beginning (and not in its role of describing the universe's conditions billions of years ago), is becoming more and more precarious, scientifically.

I've always wondered a bit about this, but my take on it is more related to the problem time itself presents:  it's just a dimension, which happens to have a sort of built-in directionality or "slope" (forward), that our perceptions roll down.  And to talk of beginnings or endings in the broad sense of the whole universe neglects the very real possibility that time is a local condition, rather than a universal one.  Which is to say, there's no meaning to concepts of begenning or ending without any time.  Beyond time.

I suppose you could say that I'm trying to apply the so-called anthropic principle to time, and suggest that time is just an accident of our (local) universe that seems special but isn't.  It seems special because it's part of what gives our consciousness its unique, weird, consciousness-like characteristics.  But in the bigger picture, it's a minor, even irrelevant characteristic, or a sort of emergent property of other, deeper things, in the same way that there is a specific value for pi that emerges from the mathematical relations between points in a plane, or that we experience something we call temperature, which is really just the fact of a large bunch of particles wiggling at a certain average energy level.

Caveat: A Call to Give Up

Last night I stopped in the stationery store to buy some more colored paper for my sixth grade town project, and had an actual conversation with the woman in the store, in Korean.   I was buying some stickers and toys too (thinking of using them as prizes at some point).

It was pretty cool:  Where do you work?  At Hongnong elementary.  The kids like these things.  Yes, they do.  Your Korean is pretty good.  No, I only know a little.  How long have you been here?  I lived in Seoul for 2 years and started living here recently.  Etc.

At the end, the woman complimented my Korean again, but I felt ashamed.  "계속 연습 하고 해요," I said (continuing practice [I should] do).  But it felt like a lie.

Why?  Because I have kind of dropped the ball on actively studying Korean.  My first few months here in Yeonggwang, I'd kept really well to my routine of working on Korean at least an hour a day.  But since the start of summer vacation, I haven't studied at all.  My vocabulary list on my cell phone has reached maximum size of 200 words, so I'm not even saving the words I look up anymore.  I'm not reviewing vocabulary.  I'm not carrying around my "grammar bible" lately.

I thought about this.  I think I was much more deeply wounded than I've been willing to admit, by the alcohol-imbued insults and mockery of my Korean-speaking efforts, that were directed at me during our "staff field trip" three weeks ago.   I took it all very personally.  And I took it as a call to give up on learning Korean.  Certainly, it really wrecked my motivation.

Keep this in mind, the next time you want to laugh at someone's English that isn't so perfect.  There are many English-speakers in Korea who have such an atrocious level of attainment that you want to laugh.  They can sound like buffoons.  But don't laugh.  Be positive.  I've been guilty of it, too – I know.

Learning a language is hard.  This is one of the reasons why I think it should be required for foreigners teaching English here to study Korean.  I think it would increase sensitivity to the emotional/motivational issues involved in language acquisition – they're not trivial.

Caveat: Dropping ants from toy helicopters to see if they can survive

I saw a Korean popular science game show type progrom where they were dropping ants from toy helicopters and then looking for the ants to see if they survived the fall.  The ants survived, of course.  I think ants are of such low mass relative to surface area that falling through air is like falling through water for something larger… the air resistance means their terminal velocity is quite low or something like that.  They ride the air down like a feather, floating and wafting about.

Today I had a lunch of delicious kong-guk-su (handmade noodles in an iced soy soup, with cucumber) – I went out with Cheor-ho.  

I thought my first grade class went well today -  I'm not sure why I think that, since the kids were running around like crazy monkeys.  Maybe I just felt more peaceful about that fact?  For a while I had them sitting in a circle on the floor with me, while we read a story.  I would stop and ask them simple questions, based on the model of the story:  "Do you want some milk?"  "Yes."  Miming, going around in the circle.  Before that, the kids had gotten hyper throwing paper airplanes we made, too.

I'm trying to get my sixth graders to start buying and selling land from each other in the town we've built.  But they're too respectful of each other's prerogatives… or too shy to aggressively buy and sell, even though they have no problem hurling insults at one another.  It's interesting observing these cultural differences, and to reflect on what implications they may have (if any) for how Korean capitalism actually works.

Caveat: Lately

I’ve been having a lot of computer problems, lately. But I think I should lay off ranting about it here.

pictureI’ve been having a lot of vivid, weird dreams, lately, too. But I hesitate to write about those, sometimes. Nobody wants to read all the time about someone else’s dreams.

I’ve been having a rather vague, inconclusive experience with my teaching efforts, lately. I’m not sure what I could say about it. The first grade feels out-of-control-but-situation-normal. The third grade may be improving with my new, changed direction; and sixth grade remains excellent, although I’m groping for ways to keep it interesting. The “JET” test-prep class is boring. But I expected that. Boring subject can easily lead to boring class.

I haven’t been communicating much with friends or family, lately. Sorry about that. I’ve been in one of my periodic eremitic states.

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little blue. (Picture is my own artwork, done in 1992.)

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Caveat: Practice

I couldn't think of what I wanted to write in this blog.  Sometimes I just don't have anything I feel like sharing.  I went surfing through my more private journal of notes and observations, looking for something to write here.  I found the following unattributed quote, from a while back.  Did I make it up?  Did I hear it somewhere?

What is sleep?  Just practicing being dead.  Everything requires practice.

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